Friday, June 29, 2007

A New Meme

Well, since I'm on the road with all kinds of ideas for my blog but not much time, I've decided I might as well take another step closer to the meme rehab center. I'm brewing my own this go-around, but, you know, as long as it serves its purpose, who cares if it tastes a little too sweet. It's a feel-good meme. Here are the rules:

1. Get out of your thought-this-was-gonna-be-the-best-summer-ever-and-it's-already-disappointing-me funk
2. Not out of that funk yet? Then think of ten (that's ten, not eight, because I've still never had anyone tell me why memes fixate on the number 8) great compliments you've received throughout your life
3. Write them down
4. If you're not out of your funk by now, come over and have a mai tai with me, and then we won't give a damn whether we have the best summer of our lives or not
5. Tag a bunch of people

10 Great Compliments I've Received

1. The sweetest, most brilliant, most kind and gentle man with the best sense of humor I've ever met (sorry to disappoint all you males out there who think I'm describing you. Unless you're married to me, I'm not, although I'm sure you're a very close second) chose me to be his lifelong partner. And he hasn't changed his mind. And he still laughs at my stories and jokes.

2. Despite the fact I'm extremely flattered that this man has chosen me, he sometimes forgets how lucky he is and has to be reminded. For instance, he has a tendency to walk about twenty paces ahead of me when we're, oh, let's just say, on 42nd Street, racing to get tickets for the theater and then to get down to Yankee stadium for a game. One day, we find ourselves in this very situation and a wonderful, charming, extraordinarily insightful shoe shine guy (and I have to point out, he stood no chance of making any money off us, because we were both wearing sneakers), said to me "You are beautiful," and called out to the back of Bob's head, "You slow down for her and quit running her so hard. You're a very lucky man!" (Imagine how often those lines get repeated, substituting "me" for "her," of course.)

3. A few years back, I bought I Capture the Castle for a friend who'd never read it. When he finished it, his comment to me was, "You could have written that book." If you were to put a gun to my head and say "Name your favorite book," this would probably be the answer. To have someone tell me I could've written such a book...well, the man can now do no wrong.

4. Oh, and speaking of men who can do no wrong, we all know what Mandarine did that moved him into that category. Of course, he's also offered to take me touring cheese caves, which is extra insurance.

5. When I left my former job, 2 of the editors I'd supervised also left within months. I know, this may have been a coincidence, but I like to think it's because they didn't want to work for the company without me there. I had a hint this was the case, because when I held the meeting to announce I was leaving, one of them said, "Do we slit our wrists now or later?"

6. Our first year in college, my roommate and I went to see It's a Wonderful Life together. Afterwards, she said to me, "Emily, if you'd never been born, I wouldn't have survived this first semester." Up until that point, I'd never watched that movie thinking in terms of how I might have affected others in my life, so focused was I on what a true hero old ordinary George Bailey was.

7. My twelfth-grade psychology teacher told me I was one of the most discerning young women she'd ever met. Hmmm...I wonder if that's why I went on to become a pscyh major in college.

8. My brother, who is the best chef I've ever known, not only will eat what I cook, but will also praise it. And I know he's not just being polite, because he'll also have seconds.

9. I was carded at the liquor store when I was 37. No, that's not a typo. I didn't mean 27, I really did mean 37. For some reason, I had a bit of a hard time finding my licence, and I remember saying to the woman, "Forget the gin. Don't sell it to me if you don't want to. You just made my day, and I want to find this, so I can show you how old I am." I found it, and she said, "Really, you look like a college kid." I almost jumped over the counter and hugged her.

10. A few years back, my sister sent around one of those emails in which the recipient was supposed to come up with a one-word description for the sender and send it back, while passing on the message to others to do the same. If you replied to the sender, she was supposed to send back her one-word description of you. (Can you tell my sister had pre-teenaged daughters at the time?) My sister's one-word description of me was "funny."

Tagging: Litlove, Courtney, Charlotte, Dorr, Hobs, Ian, Froshty, Becky, Cam, Stef, Fem, and The-Man-Who-Can-Do-No-Wrong-Who's-Invited-Me-To-Tour-Cheese-Caves. (I'd tag you, Danny, but I know how you feel about memes.) If you're reading this and feel the need to get out of a funk, consider yourself tagged as well. Throwing caution to the wind and briefly being immodest for a change is better than ten sessions with the best shrink in the world. I'm sure of it.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Lies, Lies, All Lies (and Irritability)

Katie Couric lied to us all. On national TV, no less. I mean, I believed her when she cheerily told us all that having a colonoscopy was no big deal. I suppose we should forgive her, though. After all, she wasn’t really lying. She had just completed the easy part of the procedure, the part in which the patient is drugged into La La Land. A person awaking from that, still woozy and relaxed would likely be willing to announce cheerily to us all that being mauled by a tiger is no big deal.

What she neglected to do was to tell us about the day before the procedure. The day before the procedure is a big deal. I know. I just went through it last week.

People don’t normally have to have colonoscopies until they’re at least fifty. However, I happen to be one of those lucky people blessed with the sort of body that when someone just very quietly whispers, “possible stressful situation ahead” fights back with such lovely weapons as migraines, walking pneumonia, and irritable bowel syndrome. Thus, in the summer of 2001, when I was beginning to wish I could just skip all this food-to-mouth-to-stomach business and be fed intravenously, my doctor recommended I have my first colonoscopy, to be sure it was nothing but IBS (read, "to be sure he didn't get sued for telling me it was just stress when in reality, I only had six months to live"). The results concluded it truly was nothing but IBS, and once I got a new boss at my old job, the IBS mysteriously became much less of a problem. Since switching jobs and becoming a telecommuter, I’ve had no problem at all with grumpy intestines, but my GP still thought it would be a good idea for me to start having regular colonoscopies, so, this, unfortunately, was not my first.

I’m beginning to understand a tiny bit why women suffer through the agony of childbirth and then decide to do it again. My female friends have always explained to me that women begin to forget that horrible pain once they have their little bundle of joy. By the time that “bundle of joy” has become a handful, a woman has all-but-forgotten the agony of childbirth in her desire for yet another “bundle of joy.” I’ve always thought all this was a bit of a lie and part of the conspiracy to get those who’ve never given birth to go ahead and try it. “Oh, yes, giving birth is painful, but you forget all about it, you know. I barely remember a thing, and besides, it’s just ‘baby pain,’ which is so different from other sorts of pain.’” No big deal, just like Katie Couric’s colonoscopy. All women must have a little of that “delivery-pain amnesia” stored somewhere, though.

You see, the last time I had this procedure, I don’t remember it being all that bad, despite warnings from those I knew who’d had one. Either I’ve become extraordinarily frail and intolerant since 2001, or some of that “delivery-pain amnesia” managed to snake its way from the back of my brain where it’s been sitting, convinced it would never find a use, up to the front. I seem to recall that last time my appointment was in the afternoon. Bob and I went out looking at kitchen cabinets and bought new running shoes. We hit traffic on the way to the surgery center, and I was a little late. The nurses all joked about how it was a good thing the doctor was always late, because wouldn’t it be horrible to have gone through all that prep for nothing. I distinctly remember thinking it hadn’t really been all that bad. I don’t remember spending that much time on the toilet, and I certainly don’t remember starving to the point I would gladly have begun gnawing on my arm if I’d been allowed to do so.

This go-around, I had to keep reminding myself that people pay money (good money. Really good money) to go to spas where they flush out their systems this way. These thoughts occurred, quite obviously, early on in the ordeal. By the time 9:00 p.m. on Procedure Eve rolled around, I was thinking “What a sick, sick society I live in. I can’t believe people have managed to convince others to pay them for this sort of torture.”

To tell you the truth, the worst part for me is not being able to eat. I’m not someone who would make a good candidate as an “orthodox” anything, if it involves fasting, since I consider a fast of five hours to be way too long. You can tell time by my stomach. If I eat breakfast at 7:00 a.m., I will know it’s 10:00 a.m. when my stomach starts growling. If I ignore its warning, I’m likely, within an hour, to start snapping off heads of people who happen to get in my way.

You know how you’ll read books about Native Americans and the shaman who was able to induce trance-like states, often by foregoing food for days on end? Or maybe you’ve read books like A Canticle for Leibowitz, in which the monks do the same. I have friends and acquaintances who’ve talked to me about out-of-body experiences, or experiences in which they’ve felt overwhelmed by some sort of other-worldly possession or presence. I’m jealous. My brain is way too skeptical of such things. I'd love to believe in them, but although I've managed to believe in many things I've never seen or experienced for myself (like the existence of Antarctica), these are the sorts of things I just don't really believe happen, despite the fact my imagination longs for them to be real. I believe they happen with the help of hallucinogenic drugs, but many things can happen with that sort of help.

When I do go without food for any length of time, I’m always sort of hoping that maybe I’ll benefit by having some sort of mystical, monk-like, momentary transformation that will make me truly believe in such things. After all, since I’m someone who gets hungry after three hours, maybe I don’t have to disappear in the desert for days on end with nothing but bottles of water in order suddenly to find myself in a trance-like state. The day before a colonoscopy is a good day to hope for such things.

But no such luck, of course. I just find myself getting hungrier and hungrier, my stomach now gone from growling to roaring. Everything I pick up to read annoys me. Do you know how often authors describe some sort of meal being served and eaten? I struggle through these passages, sipping my low-sodium chicken broth that makes me long to go out and kill a few chickens, just because I can. Then what happens is I get incredibly weepy. Everything just seems so, so sad. If you doubt me, just know that my eyes were tearing up while reading Maisie Dobbs. Those of you who have read Maisie Dobbs know perfectly well that The Yearling it is not. On a full stomach, I wouldn’t be caught dead crying over such a book.

Truly, my only salvation was knowing that in less than 24 hours, I was going to be blissfully sedated. For someone who has suffered on-and-off from insomnia since age 13, anesthesia certainly rivals the nectar of the gods. To be instantaneously whisked from telling your doctor that you’re moving soon to seeing bunnies is enough to confirm your belief in some place called “heaven,” whatever it might be (perhaps a place in which anesthesia is needed for survival the way water is needed in this world?).

And that’s where Katie Couric was when she lied to us all on T.V. She’d probably just been skipping through fields with bunnies. And now I’ve done my bit to set the record straight for you.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Who'll Come a-Waltzing?

Bob made a huge mistake when he was a teenager. He sized up the situation and came to the conclusion that a boy could only get the hottest girls in one of two ways (until he told me this, I’d never known teen aged boys were so calculating): 1. learn to dance or 2. join a band. He’d been subjected by his parents to miserable ballroom dancing lessons, so he chose to pick up a guitar. In fairness to him, he had no idea he would one day marry a woman who thinks nothing is sexier than a man who can dance, but still. I’m sure he gets very annoyed every time I express the sentiment that I wish he’d chosen dancing, but he's too sweet to tell me how much it annoys him.

Now, I do have to admit that I’m not immune to the sexiness of members of the band (especially when they can dance), but I never even benefited from his being a band member. Sometime long before I met him, he read Nikos Kazantzakis and fed into the author’s notion that a human being can only be “great” at one thing. Bob liked to play the guitar, and he liked to write. One would have to go. He chose to put away his guitar (good thing really, since a pastor who writes and delivers a sermon every week is probably going to fair a little better than one who plays a song on his guitar every week). The only time he’s played it since I’ve known him was at his bachelor’s party (a night on which I was absent, but we do have some rather incriminating photos as proof, since he doesn’t remember that evening too well).

I don’t at all subscribe to Bob’s either/or approach to life. If the guy can get the gal by either dancing or being a band member, reason would lead one to believe he’d double his chances if he could do both. And what nonsense that people can only be great at one thing. Look at George Bush, the great liar and the great moron.

But I’m digressing. What I really want to talk about is my fanaticism over dancing men. I first realized how bad it was when attending a happy hour one evening in which the following question was posed, “Which celebrity are you most embarrassed to admit you find physically attractive?” and I found myself (let’s blame some of it on the fact that this was happy hour, and we’d all been there for more than an hour by this time), no hesitation, blurting out, “Drew Carey.” Drew Carey! He’s not my physical type at all and not the least because he wears those awful sorts of glasses that I know are supposed to be so stylish, but that still make me think, “Ewww. 1955 ended 52 years ago.” Besides, he’s a Republican. But have you seen him dance? Maybe those glasses aren’t so bad after all, and you know, some Republicans are actually very nice, charming people.

And it’s not just Drew Carey. There’s Fred Astaire, for instance. I will drop everything to watch Fred Astaire dance. Oh, to have been Ginger Rogers! (Or anyone who showed up on a movie set with him, actually, even the person who brought him his water.) If he’d had no moves, though, I probably would’ve pronounced him the perfect man to play The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz – with no makeup. Instead, I happen to think he was one of the sexiest men who ever lived.

When I was a kid and watching Welcome Back Kotter was demanded of me by my peers the way wearing powder blue Levi’s corduroys was, I was the only girl who preferred the cutely gap-toothed and sweetly tough Epstein. All my friends were gaga over Barbarino. I didn’t see Barbarino and his feather-winged hair’s appeal at all when there was Epstein with his afro. But then I saw Grease (my parents having declared I was too young to see "that awful" Saturday Night Fever), and I began to understand. Centuries later, I saw Pulp Fiction. So John Travolta’s gotten a little pudgy-faced, and he’s a Scientologist, those things don’t matter in life, really, right? What matters is that his dance scene with Uma Thurmond still sends chills up my spine. I could sit and watch that one scene for hours. The only thing better is watching Patrick Swayze (a man I used to think I wouldn’t look twice at if I passed him on the street, my preference being for the thin, bookish types not the rugged, overly-muscular types) giving lessons to Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. Actually, there is one thing better. He could come give me some lessons.

Music video was the death of me when it first became all the rage in this country. Listening to Van Halen on the radio, I was able to maintain my music snob’s attitude that this was one of the most highly mediocre bands out there. Then I saw Eddie Van Halen “jump.” Can that boy jump, or what? I suddenly became addicted to Friday Night Videos (we couldn’t afford cable with MTV when I was in college) in the hopes of catching that one each week. Meanwhile, David Bowie, who’d always had a piece of my heart paired up with Mick Jagger (who never had) for that “Dancing in the Streets” video. All my life I’ve been so disdainful of screaming young women grasping at Elvis’s leather jacket or at John Lennon’s hair, but if Bowie and Jagger came dancing down my street, dressed like that, I think I just might begin to understand.

I am, naturally, completely unfair, because “Two Left Feet” might as well be my middle name. Why should I expect men to be able to win Dancing with the Stars, when I can barely do a simple twist? It’s common knowledge that women are the ones who are supposed to be the dancers in our society, the ones dragging reluctant men out onto the dance floor. But then I realize I’ve known an awful lot of not-very-attractive guys who expect women to be drop-dead gorgeous, or they won’t go out with them. I’m not so bad after all. I’ll go out with you if you can’t dance. I’ll even marry you (although Bob can dance better than he thinks he can. He just doesn’t really like to do it). I just hope you don’t mind if I spend a little time watching the guys who do dance.

Note: my blog posts will be a bit sporadic for the next ten days or so, as today we're headed down to Pennsylvania where Bob will run his "candidating" service, and we'll be officially accepted into the church by the members of our future congregation, and next week I'm off to San Antonio, TX for a math conference. If you're not already doing so, spend some time with all the great writers on my blog roll. You won't even miss me (but promise not to desert me in favor of them).

Friday, June 22, 2007

Nobody Drinks the Way They Used To

We all know who the famous American literary alcoholics were. Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Pound, the members of the Algonquin Round Table, just to name a few. Many an English major has been forced to consider the influence the bottle had on these writers. The big question often seems to be: did it help or hurt them when it wasn’t the cause of death? My big question, however, is: how did anyone ever manage to distinguish the alcoholics from everyone else?

When I was in college, my grandmother wistfully used to say, “Nobody drinks the way they used to.” I had no real idea what she meant, as I watched her lining up many bottles of wine and cans of beer (while making sure she had one or two bottles of bourbon and gin on hand “just in case”) for a dinner party of six. After all, all my friends and I seemed to be drinking up a storm with our keg parties and mysterious “punches” sloshing around in seemingly-bottomless garbage pails. Seemed to me were “drinking the way they used to.”

But these days, I’m beginning to understand from whence my grandmother’s sentiments came. I read and hear about the “old days” of publishing and law, when three-martini lunches were standard. I’ve been known to drink my fair share of one-martini lunches in my day, but if I were to drink 3? Well, you might as well just consider me to be a part-time employee with as much work as I’d be able to get done passed out in my office. But what really kills me is that, then, those people would apparently go home to their “cocktail hours.”

I was reading Peg Bracken a few years back (by the way, if you’ve never read her do. She’s a must read for anyone who’s ever once had the thought, “I wish I didn’t have this family and house to care for”), and in one of her books (it may have been I Try to Behave Myself, but I’m not sure), she echoed my grandmother on the subject of everyone’s drinking habits (back in what I would have thought were the “’old days’ of publishing and law”). She then proceeded to provide advice on what cocktails to prepare for a cocktail party and how to serve them that had me thinking, “Well, not if you don’t want to wake up the next morning to find innert bodies lying all over the house right where they fell around 7:00 p.m. last night.”

Most recently I’ve been reading things like M.F.K. Fisher. You wouldn’t believe how much alcohol that woman was able to imbibe, and I haven’t a clue how she managed to remember every single thing she ever ate from age two on when she must have been killing brain cells at the speed of light. Maybe all that booze focused on killing the cells that make a woman feel guilty for lying when she announces that she and her husband didn’t drink that much. Let’s just say, one day and one night with these “light drinkers,” and I’d be dead from alcohol poisoning.

I’ve also been reading The Lady and the Panda. Now that I'm aware of what and how those explorers drank, I’m beginning to understand why quite a few expeditions in China might have ended with falls from mountainsides. Especially when you add the fact that, apparently, opium was also often being smoked by the Chinese men hired to do all the heavy lifting and carrying.

Although I despise the New Puritans whose thought bubbles forget they’re supposed to be hidden and come churning right up to the surface, reading, “She’s having a third glass of wine?” when I’m out enjoying myself immensely at a dinner party, I’m quite relieved we no longer live in a society in which so many adults are basically drunk every day from noon until they go to bed at night. First of all, we have enough insane drivers on the road as it is. Secondly, I stay out of bars unless I’m with Bob these days, because I spent enough time in my twenties warding off the attentions of drunken men who wouldn’t have given me the time of day if we'd been in a business meeting together at 10:00 a.m. Imagine if those drunken men started showing up at 2:30 p.m. business meetings. And thirdly, I know I’ve got about as much willpower against peer pressure as, oh, your average twelve-year-old, and I value my liver. Quite highly, actually.

So, I’ll leave that sort of drinking up to the Dorothy Parkers of the world. And I’ll steal my grandmother’s phrase, re-shaping it a little to make it my own. Read this in a very wistful tone: nobody reads the way they used to.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ten Things I WILL Miss About Connecticut

Yesterday, I had to drive down to N.J. and back for a sales meeting (which is worthy of a post in and of itself, but I’m going to leave that up to your imaginations. Suffice it to say that driving while exhausted is not a good idea and can easily turn what should be a 2-hour drive into a 4-hour drive, even without the help of rush hour traffic, especially if you refuse to spend a fortune on a GPS and have maps in your glove compartment for every state except – you guessed it – New Jersey. I mean, when would you ever decide to go to New Jersey, except to just pass through it? And the maps for New York and Pennsylvania show enough of it to help you do so. I’m still wondering, though, why a car that lives in Connecticut and has never been west of the Mississippi, houses a map of California in its glove compartment). Because I ended up taking a rather circuitous route, I was hit over the head with how beautiful this part of the world is (not Jersey City and Newark, I promise you, but upstate New York and Connecticut). Thus, I was reminded that Charlotte had requested a post on things I will miss about CT. How can I deny Charlotte? Here are my ten things I will miss about this state:

1. The Long Island Sound
Before I’d ever been to Connecticut as an adult, my friend Kathy, who is basically the reason I ended up here, made me very jealous by telling me she could ride her bike to the beach. You have to understand that I grew up smack dab in the middle of North Carolina, a state in which you can drive from the beach to the mountains, in oh, about eight hours (yes, it’s one of those states where we always think in terms of hours, not miles). To get anywhere on the coast was at least a four-hour drive. If my father happened to be at the wheel, make that six. However, when you arrived at “the beach,” you were greeted with miles and miles of sandy shoreline and wondrous waves crashing in from the depths of the Atlantic. If you were lucky enough to be up at the Outer Banks, you were greeted with sand dunes so high people hang glide off them. When I came to visit Kathy for the first time, and she took me to “the beach,” my question was, “Are we there yet?” What I saw was a lake with a sand lot and lots of rocks. Twenty-two years later, I’ve come to love the placid Long Island Sound, having discovered what fun it is to explore the jagged coast line with its rocky sand bars and little islands.

2. Tree Tunnels
When we were kids traveling around England, Ian one day noted how he loved all the tree tunnels. The way the tops of the trees grew into each other above some of the roads, it really did seem as if the little roads had been carved through the trees, just as roads are carved through mountains to make tunnels. From that moment on, we kept a lookout for tree tunnels. We thought they were grand in England, because we hadn’t spent much time in Connecticut. One doesn’t keep an eye out for tree tunnels in this state. This time of year, on the “back roads” we all travel in order to avoid the traffic on the highways, one keeps an eye out for patches of sky through the leaves. It’s lovely, and it’s really not all that hard to believe that when the first settlers arrived in this area, it was nothing but trees. I’m moving to farm country. I’m sure I can find a tree somewhere in Lancaster County, but I’m going to have to drive quite a ways…

3. Unexpected Snow When the Leaves Are Still on the Trees
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, we’ll get a snow storm in October. This is New England. One thing no one can deny is that fall is spectacular here. If you’re someone who happens to think snow is beautiful settled on the branches of evergreens, that bright white contrasted against the dark green, just imagine what it’s like in contrast to fiery orange, yellow, and red oaks and maples.

4. Stone Walls
Centuries-old stone walls are so much a part of the Connecticut landscape, they can’t be used as landmarks. You’d have one terribly confused driver if you said, “Turn right when you get to the stone wall.” Lots of people repair their stone walls, but I like them best when they’re crumbling. On the woodsy part of the walk I take every day, we've got some wonderful crumbling ones that just begin and end with no apparent rhyme or reason. It’s hard to believe they could possibly have once been markers for fields, but then again, see point number #2. I once heard on the radio that whole ecosystems in the state are completely reliant on these man-made treasures, a fact I find very cool, because it gives me a little hope. I suppose, sometimes, through dumb luck, our industry actually creates havens for those sharing this planet with us.

5. Pizza
Sorry, New York. All your best pizza-makers must have moved to Connecticut. The only places you can get a bad pizza in this state are chains like Dominoes and Pizza Hut. The fancier places are really good, but try some small, unimposing place (most likely called John’s Best Pizza or Pepinos or something) situated in the middle of some strip mall someplace, with just a few tables, and an Italian flag proudly on display. I promise you, you can’t go wrong.

6. “Olde” Taverns and Inns
If you want a really good New England clam chowder and a chicken pot pie you’ll dream about for weeks afterwards, stop in at anything that describes itself as a tavern or an inn. You’ll most likely get to eat them in a wonderfully warm and friendly setting (in some places, even surrounded by bookshelves. Just don’t look too closely at the “books,” which are probably fake), with wooden chairs and tables. Expect a roaring fire in a huge old fireplace in the winter (don't forget how long I told you that season is, so as long as you aren't here in July and August, you're likely to have one. I'm feeling as though I could use one right now as I type this).

7. The Long Wharf Theatre
Broadway, Schmoadway. If you want to see something really good, something you’ll be discussing for hours after you leave, and you’re stuck on 42nd Street, just walk on over to Grand Central Station and catch the Metro North line to New Haven.

8. Coyotes
There is nothing more eerily beautiful than to wake up and hear them howling somewhere “just out back.” Everytime it happens, I think of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

9. The Library System
Connecticut spends a lot of money on its libraries, and it shows. Most of the libraries in the state have reciprocity. This means if you live somewhere between two or three major cities, you can go to any one of those cities and check out books with your hometown card. And they attract great authors from all over to come and speak. My favorite was hearing Mark Mathabane years and years ago. I recently discovered I’d just missed seeing the other Emily Barton speak at one of the libraries I frequent. Too bad. I bet you all would have loved to have read a post on that.

10. My friends
This is self-explanatory, don’t you think?

The Gastronomical Me in a nutshell: Shhh. Please don't tell Rose Macaulay I have a new infatuation for whom she's going to have to make room on the shelves. Although M.F.K. Fisher has a way of leaving out personal details (what happened with that first marriage to Al? How, exactly, did she and Chexbres come about? Her brother died? When? How? In WWII?) that left me hungering for a big, juicy biography, her details about food leave me completely satiated. In fact, her details about food leave me thinking, "Man, I don't pay nearly enough attention to what I'm eating, where, and when." Combine the food and the many places in which it's eaten with a way of making the reader's emotions run cross-country and you know you've got me. Caution: don't read this book if you're hungry and have no means of getting any food for a while.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Fifth Thing You May Not Know About Me

(I promise I wrote this before I read Ian's post, but it kind of makes you wonder about sibling connections that we were both writing about the same subject in the same week, doesn't it?)

Remember last year when I was expanding on the five things you may not know about me? Well, I don’t blame you. I barely remember it myself. If you want to refresh your memory, before you read on as I attack the fifth one I never got around to doing, here you go (first link takes you to the original post, second link to my explanation for expansion).

The thing I think I feared most when I was a kid was attention in public places. I wanted to be left alone and to make it through each school day unnoticed by any except my few friends with whom I quietly played until I could get back home where I could play and read books. I paid careful attention to classroom dynamics in order to figure out how to achieve this goal, and thus I discovered that the best way to be left alone was to pretend to like things I didn’t and not to be afraid of anything. The boys were constantly trying to scare the girls, and the girl who was targeted and reacted would immediately become the center of attention.

Basically, I didn’t have too much trouble when pitted against boys trying to scare me. The only reptile I didn’t adore (I’ve always loved frogs, lizards, and turtles) were snakes. If I had such a creature (with the exception of the snake) thrown at me, I was more likely to make sure it didn’t get hurt than to scream. And (truth be told), snakes didn’t show up, because not many of the boys were particularly enamored of them, either. We lived in Copperhead territory, where parents warned their children from a very young age to stay away from snakes, terrified of bites from this poisonous variety. We all pretty much heeded out parents’ warnings on this one and kept our distance.

I thought women who screamed and jumped on chairs over a cute little mouse (as depicted on such shows at The Brady Bunch) were absurd. Spiders fascinated me: the bigger the better (although I didn’t particularly want them crawling on me, but it’s easy enough when you’re fascinated by them not to show fear when one is discovered crawling out of a hole, so that no one thinks of picking it up and letting it crawl on you). I was the kid who went around purposely picking up rocks to see all the creepy crawly things residing under it. Yes, they might be somewhat gross, but they were also very intriguing.

I’m pretty sure I held the position of “best ghost story teller” amongst my peers for a number of years. I was always disappointed when ghost-story-telling sessions came to an end due to some coward’s tearful race to the grown-ups or, worse, to loss of interest from others. I always wondered how they could lose interest while I was still waiting for a story that would scare me even more than the last.

So, I managed to avoid drawing public attention for being a scaredy cat. I wasn’t quite as adept at avoiding attention for being the class klutz, but at least no one could get me screeching and acting like a baby on the playground or in the classroom. I was just as tough as the boys.

However, there was one fear no one ever tested. No one ever thought about the fact that someone might be afraid of heights. I mean, it’s not as if we had cliffs or skyscraper scaffolding out on the playground. The greatest height we had was the top of the monkey bars, from which a kid could fall and break an arm (as some had), but that was about it. No one knew as I began to develop this fear that it was happening.

I wasn’t always afraid of heights. I don’t know when the joy of climbing to the tops of trees and racing around on rooftops ended, but I do know that by the time I was in 8th grade, no one would catch me even on the lowest of tree branches. This is sad, really, because up until that point, I’d loved climbing up into a tree with a good book or playing Tarzan with jump ropes for vines.

My fear of heights is extremely particular, and I’ve come to realize over the years that it really has more to do with having been that class klutz, probably, than anything else. I’m not the least bit afraid to be up in an airplane, say, or on a mile-high swinging bridge, or at the top of The Empire State Building (a spot I adore). However, put me anywhere I have to rely on my own two feet to keep me from dropping a few yards, and I become paralyzed with fear.

This fear of mine probably wouldn’t be much of a problem if I hadn’t happened to marry someone who has to climb to the top of every cathedral we come to while exploring The British Isles (have you seen some of those precariously-balanced little ladders you have to climb in some places in order to do so?), scaling the sides of ancient pyramids in Tikal, and hiking up cliffs in Maine. He’s become extremely patient with me over the years, but there is usually some point during these sorts of vacations at which we’re stopped, and I’m tearfully announcing, “I just can’t!” And I’m always like a cat: quite often I can manage to climb up something, but coming back down becomes an exercise in torture.

Many of you are probably thinking, “Why does she go?” “Why doesn’t she send him off to these places alone?” Well, you’ve obviously forgotten I’m somewhat of a masochist. I actually do want to see all of Salisbury from the top of the cathedral; I want to watch the sunrise from the top of a Mayan pyramid; I want to see the ocean from that mountain peak in Maine. I just don’t want to have to get there. And I want to make sure I’m a good 100 feet back from the edge at all times.

I’ve been known to say, “I’ve really got to get over my fear of heights.” I’m sure I could do so with a little intense psychotherapy. But, at a company Christmas party a few years back, I found myself actually admitting my fear to the boys. I was the only female manager in my department at the time, and for some reason, we were being cliquish (which was unlike us), and all the managers in my department were sitting together. Once the admission was out, I noticed that none of them immediately hoisted me up onto a ladder somewhere. None of them decided to drive me to the edge of a cliff or to take me out onto the roof of the building. As a matter of fact, when I announced it was a fear I felt I ought to overcome, one of them turned to me and asked, “Why?” Another immediately echoed this sentiment.

Why indeed? After all, I’m not a roofer. I don’t install telephone lines. I’m not in the practice of washing skyscraper windows from the outside. And if I’m at an age at which fears no longer excite the boys into action, causing me to be the center of attention, I can live quite comfortably with them. Just don’t put me on a trapeze in front of a huge audience, please.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Emily's TV Curse

For the record: I don’t watch T.V. For the flip side: I DVR movies that pile up at an alarming rate, getting ignored in favor of books almost every single night. Oh yes, and every so often I discover some brilliant TV show that used to make me think, “Oh no. Now every [fill in the night], I have to make sure I’m home and remember to turn on the TV at [fill in the time].” But not anymore, because I have the DVR (which is much, much easier than remembering to have a blank tape available and programming the VCR). Unfortunately, I can’t say, “but not anymore” to the other fact related to almost every one of these shows, which is that, if I’m lucky, it will last an entire season. Remember My So-Called Life?” If you do, it’s probably only because Claire Danes went on to do other stuff, and you’ve read about it. I bet you don’t remember Sports News or was it Sport News? (Even I can’t remember, but it was a damn good show during the three months or so it lasted.) Does anyone else even know that last fall a brilliant, thrilling show called Kidnapped was on the air? I do have to be fair here and note that a few shows, like WKRP in Cincinnati (but that’s only because, like The West Wing, I didn’t really start watching it until it was in reruns), Thirty Something, Once and Again, and News Radio did manage to last a few more than one season, but not many more. And every once in a while, for some unfathomable reason, something that’s pure brilliance like Frasier will defy all odds related to the American television viewing public’s preferences and will have a real TV life. But really, if there’s a show on TV you love to watch, you need to call me and tell me not to watch it, because if I’m watching it and enjoying it, it’s doomed.

These days, I happen to be mourning the loss of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. How could this show not have made it? I’ve just realized that’s a really dumb question. This is America. This is the land in which people want to watch America’s Temptation Island of Stranded Twenty-or-Forty-Something?-Desperate-Back-Stabbing-Bachelorettes. Nobody wants to watch something that’s brilliant and hilarious, that provides them with insight into what goes on behind-the-scenes in a television studio and that makes them think as well. No one wants to watch state-of-the-art acting on television, a place they’ve come to count on for the soap-opera-deadpan-“I-sees” they’ve been addicted to all their lives. Imagine a television show that’s so extraordinarily well done it could be a contender at Cannes. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it just should have been a movie instead. Maybe for a TV show to stand up to the critics (and all the critics loved this one) is a kiss of death in a way that it isn’t for movies (sure, they might not be blockbuster hits, but no one pulls these hits from theaters before anyone gets the chance to see them). Maybe Aaron Sorkin needs to hook up with Martin Scorcese or something.

The next one that’s going to go, I’m sure, is 30 Rock. This one is right up there with News Radio, as far as I’m concerned. Even if I didn’t want to be Tina Fey, I’m sure I’d feel this way. But I don’t get it. Why has this one survived while Studio 60 hasn’t? They’re both behind-the-scenes looks at producing television shows. And one would think that for couch potatoes who never leave their homes, the prime-time-every-other-week-on-the-cover-of-People face of Matthew Perry would be a more familiar one than that of Alec Baldwin, whose last movie was…? Yet, everyone is eating up Alec Baldwin (and I’m not about to say he isn’t absolutely wonderful in the role, because he is), while they couldn't seem to care less that Matthew Perry is becoming addicted to uppers while he and his girlfriend split and the network is threatening to cancel his show. Meanwhile, I’m discovering he has far more depth and range as an actor than I ever knew. And, instead of getting to see how this all pans out, we’re just going to have some pat 2 minutes in which he announces he’s no longer taking the pills, and we're all expected to believe that (despite the fact we all know that in real life, he’s struggled off and on with substance abuse and knows perfectly well this isn’t how one gets “cured”).

Thus, I’ve decided, no matter what, I’m not going to be lured into watching anything that’s being publicized and praised come this fall’s new season. And I am going to ignore the Seinfeld syndrome, because thinking about it makes me feel I need to watch every show from its inception. I suffered from this little-known syndrome for nearly a year, its major symptom being the feeling you will never catch up. You see, I’d read and heard about Seinfeld before I actually began to watch it, and then I had a million unanswered questions I was afraid to ask anyone. This symptom was epitomized by the fans who’d been watching the show since its pilot days and would breezily explain to me, “Seinfeld and Elaine once dated.” What did they mean by that? Were the two going out together during the first season? What had I missed? But then I’ll remind myself that the only reason Seinfeld, a show I came to love, was a success was that I was completely uninterested in it during its first two years. As a matter of fact, the same was true of Frasier. I mean, how often are spin-offs successful? And Frasier had never been one of my favorite characters from Cheers. I wish I could say the same about Studio 60. After all, I would much rather have tuned in to it in 2009 and be asking, “You mean Danny is just Jordan’s baby’s adopted father? How did that happen?” than to see this oh-so-promising beginning crash and burn right out of the starting gate.

Then again, I’ve just come up with yet another argument for reading books. People don’t pull books from your shelves and toss them away when you’re not done with them. And it doesn’t matter at all whether the rest of the American public is reading a book you like or not. You will still get the chance to finish it. And the Seinfeld syndrome? All you hypochondriacs out there are safe from that one as long as you stick to books.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

I Am Not Alone II

Litlove and Courtney both tackled the writing things meme with the sort of grace we’ve come to expect from them. I was thinking of adding my own clumsy steps to the dance, but then I realized I’ve got this piece already half developed that sort of does the same thing. Thus, I thought I’d finish the other half and share it instead.

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that Bob and I subscribe to a local theater here in Connecticut. I’m being a little disingenuous when I say that, so I’ve decided to come clean and say that this “local theater” is The Long Wharf in New Haven, CT., one of the best regional theaters in the country. Its close proximity to New York means access to so much talent. In April, we were treated to the world premier of a collaboration between the playwrights David Cale and Dael Orlandersmith. The interesting thing about these two is that they’re used to working solo: writing and performing their own material. This extraordinary effort gave absolutely no indication of that, as if they’d been partners on paper and on the stage for years. It worked beautifully and seamlessly, the two of them creating completely believable characters, regardless of age, sex, race, and sexual preferences (although the dramaturge tells us it wasn’t so seamless in production).

But I’m not going to write anymore about the play itself. I’m perfectly aware of the fact that it’s a. extremely annoying to those who love live theater to read about how terrific something was that they’ll never get the chance to see and b. how extremely annoying it is for those who couldn’t care less about live theater to read anything about it at all. What I want to focus on is the little “Offstage” handout the dramaturge puts together for each performance. This handout typically provides thoroughly well-researched background material for the play as well as, when possible (i.e. when he/she is still alive and around), an interview with the playwright. Both playwrights were interviewed for this piece.

David Cale said this in his interview:

“Writing for me is like going for a walk. You think you’re going to head down to the river, and before you know it, you’ve made a detour, and you’re standing in a grocery store in midtown with a cookie in your hand.”

Dael Olandersmith had this to say about writing,

“Sometimes I’ll write while I cook. I’ll put something on the stove, then come back and write, then go back to cooking. They’re both creative acts. Particularly if you look at what is called ‘peasant cooking.’ I don’t like that expression, but it’s just that creativity coming from poverty: how do you take something that’s given to you and use your imagination to make it delectable?”

Next time I’m feeling oh-so-sorry for myself, and find myself thinking I’m just so very different from every other human being on the planet, and no one’s ever gonna understand me, I’m going to whip out this brochure and re-read it. I’ve never read two quotes that so beautifully characterize my relationship with writing. No wonder these two managed to work so well together.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

How Am I Doing?

Let’s take a look (shall we?) at how I’m doing midway through the year as far as accomplishing my 2007 blogging goals is concerned.

Finally embrace my inner litblogger, instead of pretending she doesn’t exist, and maybe even dedicate entire posts to books I’ve just read, like others do.
(Patting myself on the back.) I’d say I’ve done a great job of this, wouldn’t you? Two posts devoted entirely to books I’ve read and “in a nutshell” reactions to each book I’ve read for my classics challenges, plus discussions of books in general.

See if I can find a local chapter of M.A. (Meme’s Anonymous) and start attending support groups.
(Patting has stopped.) It’s all Charlotte's fault. She’s a horrible enabler. And now Courtney's busy posting tantalizing memes every day. I'm a goner. If, at some point, you don't hear from me for six weeks, it's because I'm in rehab.

Quit coming up with ideas for new blogs and stick with making the two I’ve got going the best they can be (well, and keep the third one going at Halloween when it’s time to write another ghost story).
Everyone should be happy they don’t have to witness what a strain it’s been not to start a couple of other blogs (most specifically a real litblog). And I am so playing around with “Notes from the Pastor’s Wife” come this fall (except then I’ll have to worry that members of the congregation might stumble upon it). Still, I’ve stuck to my guns thus far.

Speaking of challenges: don’t be so afraid of them, and maybe come up with a few fun ones of my own.
I’m slowly but surely reading through my thirteen classics challenge, as well as my thirteen children’s classics and I’m keeping up with the nonfiction five as well. I think that’s enough for one year (unless Court does that drama one she threatened to do a while back. That one would be very tempting).

Provide more links to great blogs in my posts, so people read them, and they don’t die.
This post is a prime example of how I’ve been doing that. We’ll just ignore the fact that most of them are links I’ve repeated many, many times.

Stop worrying who might be reading my blog and that I might offend people.
I’ve definitely succeeded with this one, mainly because I don’t tend to think anyone is reading this blog anymore except those of you I know and love, or those who accidentally stumble across it one-time only because they’re searching for the other Emily Barton or have done a Google search for “dye and die homonym Romeo and Juliet page” (how on earth the searcher got to me with that one is still a mystery).

Become even more convinced that I can write and that people actually want to read what I write. Blogging has come a long way in helping me to accept this, but I still have that little inner voice that loves to make occasional appearances by whispering, “Who do you think you’re fooling?”
All right, I now know I’ve got everyone completely fooled, because you all keep reading me.

Learn more about the technical aspects of blogging. I think it’s about time I got past patting myself on the back, because I. Know. How. To. Italicize.
Well, Mandarine has helped me come along in this area (although, right now, I don't seem to be able to link to him, so maybe I haven't come so far after all). I’ve done things like learned a little HTML code (I even know what HTML stands for) and produced a pencast, of which I’m still extremely proud (once again, good thing no one was here to listen to me while I was trying to produce it).

Contribute more posts, and encourage others to contribute to What We Said . Creating that blog was such a great idea on Bloglily’s part, and I’d hate to see it fizzle out. As a matter of fact, I think it could be grown into something much bigger than it actually is.
I’m pathetic, having posted over there once so far this year. However, I am hereby declaring that if you’re reading this, it’s time for you to post at What We Said. Only Litlove, the latest contributor, is exempt.

No blogging after 8:00 p.m.
I’ve done very well with this one. Every (very) so often, I break this rule, but usually, my computer is off from 8:00 p.m. – 7:30 a.m. It’s also off all day every Sunday, which means much more time for curling up with print books. Due to this, I’ve been posting less often this year, but then, that gives all of you more time to read my posts and to keep caught up, no?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

An Eye for an Eye

I was with a friend the other day who, not unlike many of us, made the mistake of pouring his heart and soul into the company for which he worked for fifteen years. They dicked him over in the end. That was quite some time ago, and he’s achieved great success at other companies, so no real harm done to his career, only to his heart and soul.

He was telling me he recently got an email out of the blue from his former boss at said company inviting him to a “reunion.” Appalled, he did exactly what many of us would have done: deleted the email without responding. But then, he tells me, he received an even more appalling phone call from a friend who’d also worked there asking if he planned to go to the reunion. When he expressed his feelings, she apparently said, “Oh come on. It’ll be fun.” He looked at me as he told me this, eyes wide, and asked, “Doesn’t anyone know how to hold a grudge anymore?”

Indeed. I certainly hope people do, because I’ve depended on good grudge-holders all my life. They’re the ones who show me how it’s done during all the times when to let a grudge merely flutter away whichever way the wind blew it would have been disastrous (you know, like when ex-boyfriend who cheated on me called me up a year later sounding all angelic and cute and apologetic and wondering what I was up to. If I hadn’t had some terrific examples of how to hold a grudge, I might never have known to say, “Hoping I didn’t get AIDS from you” and to hang up the phone with no further conversation). You see, I’ve always been absolutely pathetic at holding grudges. I’m the one who holds her breath until someone apologizes and then lets it out with a relieved whoosh saying, “Oh yes, well, you know, it really doesn’t matter so much that you stabbed my mother in the kidney. I’m sure you couldn’t help it, and after all, she’s got two. So, shall we have dinner together soon?”

When I was young, I was awed by friends who lived in the sorts of families in which members would be furious with each other and walk around in stony silence for days. I come from the sort of family in which you might hear an “I hate you” shouted in a fit of passion and then be astonished to find everyone happily laughing and playing together half an hour later. I’m sure my grudge-bearing friends were just as amazed by our odd behavior as I was by theirs. One grade-school friend would occasionally pull this “I’m-not-talking-to-you” behavior on me (usually for some mysterious unidentified transgression). I was at an absolute loss as to how to deal with this, and I’m not sure which feelings were stronger: those that were upset she wasn’t talking to me or those that were amazed she could do it. Relieved as I was when she’d finally talk to me again, I also felt a twinge of disappointment. Only four days? She couldn’t make it longer than that?

If I could hold a grudge like that, maybe one day, after a particularly annoying argument in which Bob has told me he wishes I’d just be quiet, I could stick to my guns when I swear if that’s what he wants, I’m never going to speak to him again. He’s going to learn what it’s like to have a wife who never says a word, one who doesn’t remind him to take his sunglasses for the long drive on an extremely bright day, one who doesn’t ask if he needs anything from the drugstore before she leaves (despite the fact she know he’s almost out of deodorant). We’ll see how well he does. Unfortunately, within fifteen minutes of making this decision, I’m usually talking with him again. Bob’s never going to learn a thing about the misery of living with a mute wife. I need a good grudge-holder to show me how it’s done.

I once had a roommate who was extraordinarily good at holding grudges. If she could remember a time when she’d ever felt a particular friend had used her and then felt that friend was using her a second time, that was it. The friendship was over as far as she was concerned, even if they’d been friends for ten years. She’d say to me, “Well, you know, there was that time she made me pick her up from the airport and never even thanked me,” leaving me thinking two things: a. “Yes, but what about all those fabulous dinners she cooked for you?” and b. “Uh-oh, did I remember to say ‘thank you’ after that lift from the train last week?”

I also had a colleague for a brief period who took grudge-holding to the highest levels. Really. In her hands it was true art. Her manic done-me-wrong abstracts exhausted me, though. I couldn’t imagine having to spend so much time remembering who hadn’t invited me to what parties, which co-workers had lost the right to receive help from me, who had and hadn’t snubbed me at the company picnic. I needed a cot to lie on after every visit to her cubicle.

But if all the good grudge-bearers are becoming extinct, I wish I’d taken more tips from my former roommate. I wish I hadn’t said things to her like, “I’m sure she didn’t mean it. Why don’t you go talk to her?” and instead had asked, “So tell me again exactly how you tore apart that favorite tape of hers you found in your car?” I wish I’d spent time taking notes in my colleague’s cubicle instead of fantasizing about a company-wide naptime. After all, one day I might receive an email from the woman with whom my ex-boyfriend cheated twenty years ago. She may be inviting me to a “reunion” of the “gang” that used to all go bar-hopping together. I’m going to need some good grudge-holding friend or two to keep me from calling another friend and saying, “Are you going? Let’s go. It’ll be fun.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Oh What the Hell

How about one more meme before I move on to other things? As I noted over at Courtney’s , which is where I saw this meme most recently, what Emily really needs is a new name. It seems, judging from most of the hits, thousands of Emilys have already done this one (and how depressing to discover how many others with my name are blogging). Anyway, here are some of the things I managed to tease out that weren’t associated with this meme. For those of you who don’t know the rules, it’s simple. Just go to Google and search for “[your name] needs…”

Emily needs to give Tim food in Social Studies today
Hmmm…is Tim related to my former boss who was always asking me what food I’d brought him?

Emily needs to get her Tortillas
Well, absolutely. And they’d better come with a margarita. In fact, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t really need the tortillas after all. Let’s skip them and get right to the margarita.

Emily needs a new computer
That’s a lie. She just got a new one from the office that’s taken forever to whip into shape. She certainly doesn’t want to have to go through that again.

Emily needs a home
Another lie. What she needs is someone to rent her home before it’s time to move into the new one.

Emily needs your prayers
Yawn. So what’s new?

Emily needs help deciding how to cut her hair
Long, unmanageable, and limp or short, unmanageable, and limp?

Emily needs aesthetics to shield herself
I think she’s losing her English language skills as this makes absolutely no sense to her.

Emily needs to be told, “No, there are certain things that just are not allowed.”
Oh yeah, like what?

Emily needs four infusions now
Hurry up. I’m bleeding all over the place.

Emily’s vet bill is huge, and she may need additional surgeries on her eyes and jaws
I can’t believe it! Who’s blown my cover out there and let everyone know I’m actually a crocodile?

Emily needs to know the truth, and you need help in dealing with this.
All right, everyone, come clean. I’m waiting. You can stop by and spill the beans on your way to the therapist.

I'm tagging you, Hobgoblin, because I'm dying to know what comes up when you type in "Hobgoblin needs." And I'm not going to cheat and look beforehand.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Yet Another One About Books

I feel a little guilty writing this post, as I know others have struggled a bit this year with their reading, but I’m feeling the need to express the fact that I seem to be having a particularly good reading year this year. I may have been struggling some in other areas, but books have been bowling me over (and keeping me sane through some of the struggles). I realize that by writing those two sentences, I’ve probably just doomed myself to six months of having everything I pick up to read, instead of filling me with delightful glee, leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth. Oh well, at least I can post about it if that happens.

But really, looking over the books I’ve read since January, I’ve only read one that I decided not to finish, which was My Life So Far by Jane Fonda. We read this book for one of my book discussion groups, and it’s not that I didn’t like it. It just got a little long, and she focused so much on her movies and movie-making when I really wanted to know more about things like her struggles with bulimia, her relationship with her father, and all the really cool philanthropic work she’s doing today.

Only two titles are ones about which I can say “I didn’t really like that much.” One was Little Children and the other was Prep. It isn’t that I didn’t like them at all. Each had its moments, and I did stick with both of them, wanting to know how they ended, but the ultimate experience with both was such that I wouldn’t recommend them to others (and I should pay more attention to Becky who told me she didn’t like Prep, and I still went ahead with it). In fairness, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was led to believe these books were going to be funny, and I found neither one to be so. Not even one of those great sorts of books like a John Irving or a Pat Conroy which have laugh-out-loud moments amongst extraordinary pain and sadness.

The Kills by Linda Fairstein was a bit disappointing, but only because the other two mysteries of hers I’ve read did more to immerse me in specific parts of New York than this one did, and I liked that about the others and missed it with this one. I most loved Entombed when I read it a few years ago, because of all its details about and allusions to Edgar Alan Poe. I’m beginning to wonder if she’s one of those rare mystery writers who instead of just hacking them out now and resting on her laurels (and buckets of money) is actually honing her skills and improving her craft, since The Kills was written before Entombed.

That’s it, though, as far as my disappointments go. Every other title I see as I skim through my book journal just elicits mostly sighs of contentment. Of course, one thing that helps is that this has been the year of Rose Macaulay. I’ve read three thus far (Crewe Train, They Were Defeated, and Pleasure of Ruins). They Were Defeated was apparently her only historical novel. I don’t know about you, but I could probably be dragged into a novel by even the worst writer when it’s all about goings-on at Cambridge, just as England is on the verge of civil war, and keeps its eyes focused on such things as sexism and religious beliefs, while providing a doomed romance, oh yes, and the likes of John Milton roaming around its pages. But in the hands of a masterful writer, such a thing becomes almost impossible to describe without sounding like a raving lunatic. Crewe Train is completely different, but is a wonderfully scathing look at “societal norms” with a truly remarkable female protagonist.

Linda Fairstein’s not the only one who’s taken me into New York this year. I was in a very disturbing New York with Anzia Yezierska and her Bread Givers. David Rakoff, although he was taking hilarious tours all over the world a good deal of the time, also couldn’t help but bring me back to the city he’s made his home in Fraud. And then I got to see a very poignant New York through the eyes of a mouse in E.B. White’s Stuart Little, not to mention a very topsy-turvy New York through those of a thirteen-year-old girl in her mother’s body in Mary Rodger’s Freaky Friday. All of these books mesmerized me as much as the city does.

I’ve also taken what looks like my annual trip to China (some of you may recall I went last year with June Chang) with Lisa See’s Snowflower and the Magic Fan, a fascinating study in friendship and what it means against the backdrop of the horrors of being a woman in 19th-century China. This book surprised me by being a very interesting companion to Diddie, Dumps, and Tot, which is a fascinating study in friendship and what it means against the backdrop of the horrors of slavery in 19th-century America (although the author of the former intended it as such and the author of the latter didn’t).

I’ve read quite a few other great things, and right now, I’m in the midst of reading six others (as I always seem to be). They’re all so good, it’s becoming increasingly difficult, no matter what my mood (which is usually a key factor), to decide which to pick up when I sit down to read. The Lady and the Panda (you’ll hear more about this one when I finish it, since it’s one of my nonfiction-five challenge books) by Vicki Constantine Croke, is a near-perfect nonfiction read all about Ruth Harkness, the woman who brought the first baby panda from China to America. The Innocent, with its twists and turns and ability to distract you from taking the path with all the answers, by Harlen Coben is the sort of book every book claiming to be a “thriller” should be (Bob and I discovered Coben this spring with his Tell No One, another great thriller). The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher is food writing at its best: memories, places, and food all completely inseparable from each other. Gone with the Wind, this year’s long epic, which I expect to be reading for months (and already have been), is everything it’s cracked up to be and more. I’m so surprised by Scarlett and her depth of character, so unapparent in the movie version. Same with Rhett. Then there’s Aeschylus. If you haven’t read him since college, I’d highly recommend you do so. He’s making me want to go back and re-read all the great Greek dramatists. Just be prepared to be depressed over how little we humans have learned since 460 BCE. Finally, I’m reading Old School by Tobias Woolff and am completely hooked. To tell you the truth, I don’t want any of these books to end. But end they must if I’m going to move onto others (and not be reading twenty books at once. Even for me, that might be a bit much).

So, sigh! Sigh! Sigh! And let’s hope these fabulous adventures in reading continue for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy them while I have them, because we all know how fleeting they can be.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Blended Titles and Favorite Foods

Your resident meme queen just couldn’t resist these two.

Blended Titles Meme

I got the Blended book title meme from Stefanie. The rules are to blend two titles together using the last word of one title and the first word of another. Also, you can blend the authors’ names. I decided just to browse the shelves in our living room, and I was actually having much more fun with the authors’ names than the book titles, so I came up with these four that abide by the rules:

The Pursuit of Love in the Time of Cholera by Nancy Garcia-Marquez (her mother was from Kent, and her father was from Buenos Aires, and their marriage, which was anything but boring, ruined her for life. But it made her a fabulous writer.)

Canterbuy Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Chaucer (he had a childhood obsession with cathedrals and castles, and as a teenager and very young man, he used them as backdrops to stage elaborate photographs with his friends that are incorporated into his chillingly eerie stories)

Crooked Little Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson Lamott (everyone’s assumed for years she’s a woman, but he’s really a man)

Rule of the Bone People by Russell Hulme (he escaped his hideously abusive childhood in America and found himself completely adrift among strangers on an unfamiliar continent)

Then I came up with four more, because the authors were so intriguing. These blend titles, but don’t stick to the first word/last word rules:

Beloved Tortilla Flat by Toni Steinbeck (she came from a large, very dysfunctional extended family living in just as dysfunctional a town and married a man who came from same. They never communicated and never understood each other, but the sex was great)

Sophie’s Choice, Sophie’s World by Jostein Styron (her parents escaped from Europe to South Carolina just prior to WWII, before she was born. She changed her first name from Sophie to Jostein when she moved to Norway at the age of 22, ostensibly to become a great writer -- which she did -- but really because she was following a man who subsequently broke her heart)

The Lay of the Once and Future King (a rather bawdy novel) by T. H. Ford (everyone’s assumed for years he’s a man, but she’s really a woman)

The Wizard of War and Peace by Ursula Tolstoy (Russia’s answer to J.K. Rowling)

8 Food Things Meme

(Once again, we have that number 8. Does anyone know why there's this meme obsession with the number 8?)

And this one I got from Charlotte (who else?).

What are your favourite foods?
This is an extremely difficult question for me to answer and always has been. I love spicy, creamy, sweet, sour, salty, subtle, powerful, soft, chewy, crunchy…see what I mean? And it depends on my mood. I will say, though, that there are a few very, very basic things I absolutely adore, things that, these days, are all considered “no-nos”: whole milk, cheese, real butter, eggs, potatoes, and fresh-baked bread. I’m not convinced any of these things, when you eat organic versions in moderation, are at all bad for you (most especially the eggs with their high levels of Omega Fatty-3s). The problem is that “in moderation” part.

What foods do you hate?
Sun-dried tomatoes. Why are they all the rage? Why do restaurant chefs insist on adding them to dishes that would be perfectly scrumptious without them? Unlike such things as grapes, apricots, and cherries, which are deliciously candy-like when dried, tomatoes, when dried, seem to hang on to some unpleasantly bitter flavor not noticeable when eaten in their un-dried, juicy, firm but succulent state.

Foods you like but are embarrassed to admit:
Cheese Doodles. Don’t put a huge bag in front of me, please.

Strangest food you’ve eaten and enjoyed?
Goat. It’s a bit oily, but – and I hate to admit this, because who wants to eat a cute little goat? -- I still liked it quite a lot (or maybe that’s just because it was cooked with so many intriguing Caribbean spices, it was hard not to like).

Cooking failures that still rankle?
I made a pea soup once when I was just beginning to learn my way around the kitchen, and I thought the recipe called for un-shelled peas, which seemed very odd. But this was from a health food cookbook, so I decided to try it. Bob and I still refer to it as the “dental floss” soup. The flavor was delicious, and it probably would have been fabulous if I’d shelled the peas as I thought I should, but it was so disastrous, I was never brave enough to try again. A very good lesson, though, wouldn’t you say, to prove to a budding cook that both flavor AND texture are very important?

Ingredients you don’t want to consider living without?
Butter, cream, hot peppers, cheese, garlic, sugar, cilantro, basil, lemon, lime, chocolate (but not altogether, of course).

Cuisine you’d like to know more about?
Ethiopian. I’ve been to some wonderful restaurants.

Foods you’ve hated but have grown to love?
Broccoli. Have no idea why I found this wonderful vegetable so distasteful as a child. These days, I actually find myself craving it if I go too long without it.

Yogurt. I always liked fruit-flavored yogurt, but I hated plain. Now I love it plain or plain drizzled with a little honey or molasses or maple syrup.

“Smelly” cheeses. Now, the “smellier” the better.

Current kitchen conundrum?
Knowing I should give away things that take up space that I never use (like the juicer) but being unable to part with them, either for sentimental reasons (my mother and I bought that juicer on a shopping spree before I was even married, and the first summer Bob and I had a garden, we used it all the time to make vegetable juice. The novelty has warn off, though, and I’d much rather just pick up a bottle of V-8) or because I’m convinced I suddenly might start making great use of them (right. I have tons of time to start spending hours making my own pasta with that pasta machine I’ve used twice since I got it as a wedding gift, especially when I’ve got a perfectly good rolling pin for the few times a year I decide to make my own ravioli – the only kind of pasta I ever make from scratch).

And then there’s pie crust. I really, really want to make my own. I’ve made it about four times, once with fantastic results and the other times with disastrous results. I know it takes practice, but I never make the time to practice and keep buying it already made. I’ve learned it’s very easy to make a good graham cracker crust, though, so I make odd things like pumpkin pie with graham cracker crust, which is actually quite yummy. But, you know, even a grand taste-bud adventurer like me has to admit that quiche with a graham cracker crust probably isn’t going to cut it.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ten Things I'm Not Going to Miss About Connecticut (Or The Protesting-Too-Much Lady)

1. It’s late May/early June, and it’s 95 degrees out, and the humidity level is hovering somewhere around 99%. You finally decide summer has arrived, and you risk heat stroke getting out all your summer clothes and dragging suitcases of winter clothes up to the sauna attic. Three days later, it’s dropped 40 degrees, and you have to risk frost bite going up into the freezer attic to retrieve a wool sweater.

2. The local NPR station runs out of a small college. If you drive five miles outside the town where that small college is located, you begin to lose reception. If you live 20 miles away, you have to balance the radio on your head and keep your right arm out to the side while never venturing from a particular tile in your kitchen floor in order to listen to it.

3. You can’t buy alcohol on Sundays or after 9:00 p.m. anywhere except a bar or restaurant, drastically reducing (of course) the chances that anyone on the road during these hours is driving under the influence.

4. Although you can buy beer in the grocery store, you can’t buy wine (because, you know, people are much less likely to get drunk if they drink a six pack of beer than if they drink a bottle of wine), and all the best and most-reasonably-priced places to buy wine are nowhere near any of the grocery stores anyone frequents. This means you can’t go to the grocery store, discover basil is on sale this week, decide pesto would be a great thing to have for dinner tonight, and pick up a nice bottle of wine to go with it. Or at least you can’t without having to spend so much on gas to get the wine, the money you’re saving on the basil isn’t worth it. Or you must keep a well-stocked wine cellar under the sorts of weather conditions mentioned in Thing #1.

5. If you’re female, blonde, and from the South, everyone assumes you’re

a. A complete ditz/moron
b. Inbred
c. a member of the KKK


d. all of the above

6. You’re looked at sideways if you refer to Connecticut’s “Thames River” (pronounced exactly as it’s spelled) as “The Thames” (pronounced the way it’s pronounced in every other civilized part of the world).

7. You can’t walk into a room full of people, say, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever had Lyme Disease” and expect no one will raise his or her hand. If you say, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever been put on antibiotics as a preventative measure against Lyme Disease,” probably all hands will go up.

8. If the speed limit sign says 65, you’d better be prepared to drive 80, and don't be surprised if you look in your rearview mirror to find someone practically attached to your bumper, even at this speed.

9. You’d better know what street you are on at all times, because when you come to an intersection, although, if you’re lucky, there just may be a sign to tell you what the crossroad is, there will be no street sign to tell you the name of the road you’ve been traveling on for the last five miles.

10. These are the seasons you will enjoy if you happen to live here: winter (November 1 - March 30th), a little-warmer winter (April 1st - May 31st), road construction (June 1 – Aug. 31st), and road construction with very beautiful leaves (September 1 – October 31st).

A Bend in the River in a nutshell: what a wonderfully subtle, but for some reason, very gripping and powerful work about all the social and political changes in an African town at the bend in the river during the late 20th century.

Diddie, Dumps, and Tot in a nutshell: sometimes extremely difficult to read for someone with 21st-century sensibilities, but fascinating from a historical point of view and for its versions of African-American folktales. (I thought it would be banned everywhere and impossible to get, but not so.)

Monday, June 04, 2007

Leaving New York (Never Easy)

(My apologies to REM for stealing their lyrics.)

The other day, I had to drive down to “The Gold Coast.” For those of you unfamiliar with Connecticut, this is the southwestern coastal area of the state, which borders on the Long Island Sound. It stretches from Greenwich up to Fairfield (pretending Bridgeport, which borders on Fairfield, a pretty rough city hit hard in the late eighties and early nineties, doesn’t exist). People have their 2nd (or maybe even 3rd) multi-million dollar homes along The Gold Coast, the first being a penthouse view of Central Park. This in no way guarantees they have an ounce of taste. If you’re having trouble picturing such a place, just think “Stepford Wives,” whose fictional town was based on Westport, CT.

Westport is one of the worst. Imagine “normal-sized” four-or-five-bedroom homes on lots that are probably about a quarter of an acre in size. Imagine these somewhat-modest-sized houses set back from the road on pretty, tree-lined streets. Now imagine people buying these homes, tearing them down, and building Buckingham Palaces on them, leaving all of a 2-sq.-in. piece of lawn on which their children can play, and you’ll get the idea. (Is anyone else out there like me? Do you see these McPalaces and think, “Ohmigod! All that house to take care of!” And “Merry Maids” visiting once a week does not an Upstairs, Downstairs make.)

Anyway, this little excursion made me think, “I’m not gonna miss Connecticut so much after all. Seeing all the “Mr.-and-Ms. Importants,” power suits on and briefcases in hands, flipping open their cell phones to impart the life-and-death news of “I just got off the train,” as they raced from the commuter train to their parked cars, reinforced this realization. But then I remembered: they were all coming from New York. When Bob was in school, and we had the apartment in New York, I sometimes used to do that, too (“reverse commute” it’s called when you go from New York to Connecticut to work). And then, despite the fact I knew so many of these obnoxious people have their other multi-million dollar home in New York, my thought was, “I’m SO going to miss New York!” (Of course, a couple of days later, when I was driving in Midtown Manhattan -- something I enjoy doing about as much as most people enjoy un-anaesthetized leg amputations -- I wasn’t thinking this quite as enthusiastically, but I was still thinking it.)

Because, in New York, you don’t have to hang out with these obnoxious people. In fact, a few weeks back, I was coming up from the Subway station at 125th St. and Broadway, and there was a young couple on the escalator behind me – obviously tourists – and the woman said to the man, “You know, everyone always says New York is such an unfriendly city, but I don’t think it’s unfriendly at all. Everyone’s been so nice.” Because I’m too shy, I didn’t, but I was sorely tempted to turn around and say, “That’s because all the unfriendly people moved out to Connecticut during the Reagan years and left all the nice people behind.” I actually remember saying the exact same thing about New York the first time I visited in 1985, and my feelings have only been confirmed for me during the twenty years I’ve become more and more familiar with the grand city. I'm glad to hear other visitors still draw the same conclusion.

You can do all kinds of things in New York and not once run into anyone wearing a power suit. You and a group of friends can decide you’re going to spend a Saturday evening walking across The Brooklyn Bridge and get ice cream on the other side before walking back. You can take a book up to The Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park and spend a lazy Sunday afternoon among all those fabulous imported ruins and artifacts, with a million interesting tourists, whom you can choose to either engage or ignore, depending on your preference. On a warm summer day, you can visit the dog run at Riverside Park, petting everything from Miniature Dobermans to Wolf Hounds, then go across the path to buy a burger and a beer and watch the “volleyballers” and sunbathers at “Hudson Beach,” the sandy block on the banks of the Hudson River.

You can see just about any play your heart desires right now (if you have the money). Ditto movies on the big screen. If you’re in the mood for art, you’ve got the Met. Modern art? You’ve got the MOMA. Science? Try the Museum of Natural History. Want to ride a roller coaster? Go down to Coney Island (although, unfortunately, not for long. Coney Island is soon to be no more, and I’m sure that area will become a haven for power suits. The roller coaster will still be there, though, and the suits will be barely noticeable from its great heights).

The libraries are probably some of the best in the country. And despite the rise and fall of the super bookstores, you can still find some wonderful little independent ones tucked away on side streets, near cafes (or, if you’re really lucky, The Hungarian Pastry Shop, which is conveniently located right near Labyrinth Books), where you can buy your books and then go get some tea or coffee (or fabulous pastries). And, of course, there’s The Strand, rivaled only by Portland, OR’s Powells (actually, Powells is probably better, but The Strand is a very close second).

And don’t let everyone fool you. Yes, NYC can be very, very expensive. But you can do some absolutely wonderful things for next-to-nothing. Hang out in Washington Square Park for a day, for instance, and buy your lunch from vendors. Walk up and down 5th Avenue at Christmas (leaving all your cash and credit cards at home), just enjoying the shop windows, and don’t forget to stop to admire the tree and the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center. Go down to Ground Zero and be touched in a way you never imagined. Seek out the places where all the famous people lived: The Dakota, Edgar Alan Poe’s, Theodore Roosevelt’s, etc. No one will question you if you lurk outside these places trying to envision what they were like when these people were alive – what they saw, how this contributed to what they did. Stroll anywhere along the Hudson, any time of year (but I’d most highly recommend late winter when the ice flows form as the ice cracks and breaks) and lose yourself in this most magnificent river. I have no idea why this particular body of water is so, so hypnotic, but I promise you, it is.

Why do I feel like I’m losing a friend? We won’t really be that far from New York. We can easily be in midtown Manhattan by train within two and a half hours. That’s nothing. It’s not like we’re moving to Seattle. But why do I have this gnawing feeling that we’re always going to be too busy, that we’ll never make it back?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Their Long and Winding Road

The first thing I always do when The New Yorker arrives in the mail is search the table of contents for either David Sedaris or Paul Rudnick. This week? Bingo! Sedaris is featured. It’s one of his really good ones, especially if you think Me Talk Pretty One Day is his best book. (Sorry, I’d give you the online link, but I guess The New Yorker keeps its best stuff off-line, and this article isn’t available.) Next thing I look for is some wonderful, unapologetic, scathing critique of our current administration. Bingo, again! Jeffrey Goldberg gives us “Party Unfaithful,” which could also have been called “The Decline and Fall of Rove, Gingrich, et al.” These two articles and a very funny “Shouts and Murmurs” would have been enough to satisfy me, but then I encountered “When I’m Sixty-Four,” John Colapinto’s all-absorbing piece on Paul McCartney (another article with no link).

Think and say what you will about The Beatles, but it’s nearly impossible to deny the influence they had on pop and rock music, not to mention pop culture in general. As anyone in my family can tell you, Bob and I love to have rowdy debates conversations that begin thus, “Which authors of the past fifty years will people still be reading 100 years from now?” or “Which musicians of the past fifty years will people still be listening to 100 years from now?” I had a friend in high school whose father used to say to us, “That crap you listen to, no one’s going to know who The Beatles were 200 years from now. They won’t last the way Mozart has.” (We were actually listening to David Bowie and Talking Heads. The Beatles were somewhat cool and retro, but not quite yet, or at least not yet enough for us to bring them out and play them at teenaged gatherings in parents’ “rec rooms.” But that’s beside the point.) Bob and I would beg to differ with my friend’s father.

I can honestly say I’ve had a “love-hate” relationship with the Beatles all my life. After all, they arrived in The States in the same month and year I was born. Naturally, for the first five or so years of my life, I hated them, because my parents did (they were the sorts of parents who were “shocked” by The Beatles’ “ugliness”). Then I discovered those great Muppets’ hits I’d seen a few times on Sesame Street, “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine” and “An Octupus’s Garden,” weren't by the Muppets at all, but were actually by The Beatles. I broke rank with my parents (one of my first little acts of rebellion, I guess). Besides, by then, my sisters were beginning to acquire Beatles albums (as well as albums by even “uglier” groups). Despite the fact the band had broken up, they still seemed to be coming out with new albums every year.

Looking back on it, I’m so aware of how influenced our culture was by these four young men. I doubt there were many popular cartoons and sit-coms of the era that didn’t have at least one episode that somehow alluded to The Beatles. Even Gilligan’s Island, those castaways who should have been completely unaffected by pop culture, must have had a couple of Beatles albums stowed on the S.S. Minnow (the boat hauling three life-times of goods on its “three-hour tour”). I’m amazed anyone who lived through that era could have claimed this group wouldn’t go down in history. I mean, did half the world race out and buy Mozart-style wigs when he was alive?

The summer when I was eleven or so, our friends who would eventually move to South Africa, Ian, and I listened to Abbey Road every single day. We played Pay Day, listened to Abbey Road, and drew pictures of the octopus’s garden. I know we did other things that summer (the grand finale was a performance for all the parents of a dance choreographed by my sister Lindsay to The Four Seasons’ “December, 1963” – a band certainly influenced by The Beatles), but that’s mostly what I remember about that summer.

Revolver was the first album (not 45 but album. Those of you who are old enough, remember how important the transition from 45 to album was) I ever owned. My sisters gave it to me for my birthday when I was in junior high. To find out what to get me, they pretended they were doing a survey for their school newspaper in which they were asking people, “If you could only own one album, what would it be?” I fell hook, line, and sinker, and (I think) surprised them a bit with my answer. They got it for me, though. It was followed not-too-long afterwards by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The problem is, I listened to The Beatles to death. I’m that sort of obsessive music-listener. For instance, I absolutely love the fact that our shameful car (i.e. the one that isn’t a Prius, but take note that it’s still a car, not an S.U.V.) has CD controls on the steering wheel. I can hit the replay button over, and over, and over again. I would have loved to have had such a feature on my record player when I was a teenager. Instead, I’d lift the needle over and over again to repeat my favorite songs. By the time I was in college, having been listening to them over and over in this way all my life, really, I was pretty sick of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I went years without listening to them much (except occasionally, for memory’s sake, I might pull out Abbey Road).

Then I met Bob. Bob, being a number of years older than I, was actually cognizant when The Beatles arrived on the scene. Apparently, his mother loved to relate the story of her little boy’s birthday party in which all the children were dancing to The Beatles (obviously, she’d been a little more hip than my parents). With Bob’s infectious enthusiasm (those of you who know Bob know what I mean about his “infectious enthusiasm.” He can get a person excited about a telephone pole, if he’s excited about it, relating all kinds of unknown facts about the pole and telling stories of its life), it was impossible not to start listening to them again, with a new and older ear that brought a deeper appreciation.

McCartney says it himself in the article. What a miracle it was that these four boys managed to find each other, even more of a miracle that they were in the right place at the right time for the right people to take notice. The Lennon-McCartney collaboration, while it lasted, was a perfect combination of competitive genius. It’s really fun to watch those early clips of them embarking on a journey that would have such an impact. That is, it’s fun to watch them de-boarding that plane as they arrive in America or crooning away on Ed Sullivan’s stage until we remember the tragedies in store for them, the fact that the group wouldn’t last, the fact that so many of the characters in their story would die well before that oh-so-old age of 64.

Time to go dig out Abbey Road again. Of course, it’s on CD now (but, yes, Bob does still have the album). Oh, and apologies to all our family members, but people will most definitely remember The Beatles 100 years from now. After all, it’s already been over 40.